Gene Russianoff on What to Look for From Governor-Elect Andrew Cuomo

ufalum_russianoffAndrew Cuomo won his election yesterday by an enormous margin, racking up 62 percent of the vote. When he takes office, he will be the most powerful man in New York state politics.

During his campaign, Cuomo dodged and pandered on the difficult question of how to fund the state’s transit systems, a policy decision he won’t have the option of avoiding as governor. As Cuomo shifts from candidate to chief executive, will his transportation policies shift as well? We spoke to Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign to find out what he thinks transit advocates should look for in the next few months.

Russianoff said that Governor-Elect Cuomo could start with a quick symbolic gesture. “He could take the M15 SBS to his office, which is on Third Avenue,” said Russianoff, “to show his concern for finding cost-effective solutions to transit needs.” That could bolster the budget hawk image Cuomo created for himself over the past year while taking the edge of his highly public MTA-bashing during the lone gubernatorial debate.

More substantively, Russianoff suggested that transit advocates look to Cuomo’s transition team. Will Cuomo have a group dedicated to transportation? And if so, who will serve on it? Russianoff himself served on Eliot Spitzer’s reformer-filled transportation transition team, which came out in favor of fully funding the MTA’s capital plan weeks before Spitzer even took office. The transition team selections will both reveal and shape the Cuomo administration’s priorities as his staff prepares for day one.

Once Cuomo is in office, he’ll have the ability to make appointments to the MTA Board, another way of making a quick mark on the transit system. Russianoff urged Cuomo to retain Jay Walder as MTA CEO and board chair. (He was one of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign board members who signed a letter to the gubernatorial candidates to that effect.) While Walder’s appointment lasts until 2015, as the New York Times wrote last week, “few chairmen survive long under a new administration.”

“We clearly have our differences with Jay over some issues,” said Russianoff, “but he’s a transit professional and it’s all on the merits.” Russianoff praised Walder’s ability to find administrative savings, install countdown clocks, and implement Select Bus Service in particular.

Cuomo is likely to have a number of other early appointments to the MTA board as well. The terms of gubernatorial appointees Doreen Frasca and Norman Seabrook have already expired, and Nancy Shevell’s term will expire next June. “That’s how a governor can make an immediate impact,” said Russianoff. He said the best MTA board members were experts in a particular piece of the agency’s business and willing to publicly press MTA staff on important questions.

Russianoff said Frasca in particular has been a model board member, using her expertise on bonds and financing to improve the MTA’s practices. “It’s a thing of beauty to watch her tangle with the staff,” he said.

On the nine billion dollar question of how to fund the MTA’s capital program, Russianoff said that he doesn’t expect to see a plan from the governor’s office immediately. “That may not be dealt with until the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012,” he said. The capital plan is fully funded through the end of 2011.

Russianoff expects Cuomo to somehow find a way to pay for the capital program. “There’s a consensus to keep repairing the system and not return to disinvestment,” he said. Cuomo knows that the state can’t afford to return to the broken-down transit system of the 1970s, said Russianoff, and he’ll do what it takes to prevent that from happening.

The capital program might be adjusted, however, before any major funding package is on the table, said Russianoff. “Delaying or deferring some of the more grand station overhauls may be necessary,” he suggested, with more targeted repairs prioritized instead. Mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access could also see their completion dates pushed further into the future. “There may need to be further savings found in there.”

  • JK

    What? Really? “The transition team selections will both reveal and shape the Cuomo administration’s priorities as his staff prepares for day one.”

    Does Gene really think this? I’m surprised. I simply do not believe this. All kinds of things are included in transition papers. The transition committee process is about paying respect to important stakeholders who can make trouble for you, and maybe getting a couple of creative ideas that cost nothing politically or fiscally to implement. The biggest problems for the MTA — the budget — are highly political.

  • Murray Bodin

    Well said! Walder is a professional who happens to be doing an excellent job under difficult conditions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The bottom line is, Governor Cuomo will be taking things away from people.

    If everyone with a vested interest is exempted from “shared sacrifice,” because they are our “dear seniors,” he will be taking lot of things from everyone else.

    If things get bad enough, we’ll have another downward spiral as those who work flee the soaring cost of the retired and the collapsing public services no longer provided by public employees who nonetheless are still paid.

    If he is merely a careerist politico, the goal is to get someone else blamed while taking credit. So if he can allow the transit system to collapse, not now but later, I wouldn’t put it past him.

    The goal is always to screw the future. The Straphangers don’t care about it either. Infrastructure disinvestment is a way to do that. And as for postponing investments promised 50 to 90 years ago, anything that does not get built in the next few years will NEVER get built. Chris Christie and Gene Russianoff should be honest about that.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Can Andrew Cuomo Stop Albany From Raiding Transit Again?

|
Yesterday, City Council transportation committee chair Jimmy Vacca and leading transportation advocates sent a letter to New York state’s current leadership urging them not to raid the MTA’s dedicated funds to close an impending $315 million budget deficit. As long as the MTA’s finances are vulnerable to Albany incursions, transit riders will be at risk. […]

Cuomo Cuts $100 Million to Transit [Updated]

|
Reactions to Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget are beginning to come in. The cuts to transit, which are being pegged at $100 million, are being portrayed as painful, though perhaps not devastating. The MTA itself sees Cuomo’s plan as cutting $100 million from its budget, not the $57 million we estimated earlier. That’s $200 million in […]

Red Flags for Transit in Cuomo’s State of the State Address

|
Governor Andrew Cuomo focused heavily on jobs and the economy in his 2012 State of the State address this afternoon. He also devoted a few minutes to his infrastructure initiatives. Yet, despite serving as chief executive of the state where residents depend the most on transit service and transit infrastructure for access to jobs, Cuomo […]